Have we found Hemp Shivs for Construction in Romania?

On Feb 23rd Andreea and I went to see some hemp. Two people sent us to Carei in the northern area of Satu-Mare where once (until ~3 years ago) there operated the last decortication (the process in which hemp fibers are separated from the wooden core which we need for construction) in Romania. It was a 5 hour train ride in each direction – and on the way there I was amused as I realized how far my life had come – I was excited to be on a 10 hour journey to see … hay!

This was also a wonderful opportunity for us to meet with Dorin Pop, a construction engineer who works with Teodor Pop of Lux Perennial. Dorin met us at the train station together with his friend and together we drove off to see hemp.

The picture below is what greeted us – deserted tanks where water used for retting (partial decompisition of the glue-like materials that holds together the fibers and the wooden core). In the background are fields where hemp was once grown. At the turn of the century in the area of Satu-Mare alone there used to be 8,000 hectares of hemp (for fiber) crop.

We met with Rodica Maxi who was the founder and owner of the decortication plant. The plant has been shut down for over 2 years, now there are just a couple of offices which are also in their last days. Rodica is one of the people responsible for recent legislation that lays out a simple legal process for acquiring license from the government to grow industrial hemp. She is looking forward to rebuilding the hemp-industry in Romania. Here is Rodica proudly showing and explaining to us abou hemp.

This image of a picture Rodica shows us standing proudly by fields of hemp seems to hold an entire history of hemp in Romania.

After a pleasant conversation we went to see the hemp. We were disappointed to find that the hemp is kept outside. A large venting pipe used to run from the plant and into this field where the leftovers from the decortication were dumped. We were surprised to learn that a form of hemp-construction has been going on in Romania for quite a while – that churches often purchased the hemp-shivs and used them as a stucco-sublayer for renovation and decorative paintings.

According to Rodica it is a pile of approximately 200 tons of hemp with about 10% fibers. This next image with people in it can give you some idea of the dimension of the pile.

We were extremely excited to be standing next to this pile of hay. This is the first time we’ve seen hemp and in such large quantities! The top layers are wet and rotted and therefor useless to us for construction though they would probably make an excellent fertilizer. But the middle layers looked very promising and we took a sample with us.

On the way home I kept playing around like a child with the material we took with us. As hours passed on the way back we realized that there may be a problem with the material. Outside is was probably frozen and therefore  looked and felt dry. But after spending some time in a sealed plastic bag it warmed up and began to sweat and a moldy smell began to form. We’ve been monitoring it for a few weeks and though visible mold has not appeared the smell is still there.

Rodica has offered us to take as much as we need at a symbolic price. It would be our responsibility to package and ship it to our land. It is a magical opportunity but we are still not sure about the reliability of the material for construction. We don’t want to build a house only to find after a couple of years that the insulation and breathability of the walls has been compromised and that they are rotting.

Stay tuned for more 🙂

My First Workbench Revisited

I’ve still not found peace regarding a work-bench. Though at first I’ll be busy more with wood-framing then wood-working – building a kitchen and a bed are also on my mind. So I am still hunting around for information and ideas on work-benches – and it is these findings that I want to share in this post.

However before I do I’d like to mention saw-horses. These are temporary stands we are sure to need during wood-framing and will probably form the basis for any initialwoodworking I may end up doing – including building a more comfortable workbench. Saw-horses are one of those things that people with experience take for granted – but I can’t. So I did some searching around and found lots of advice and options. As always I kept searching until I found this design which is quick, simple and cheap to build. A simple I-joist from 2×4 sets all the dimensions and angles:

So I figure that my first workbench will be a couple of saw-horses with some 2×4 stretched across them. With that out of the way let’s get back to work-benches.

The most important resource I came  across this time around is this article at the Wood Whisperer. The bottom line is that a work-bench involves a lot of personal choices that reflect how you like to work. A good work-bench is the bench that best supports your work. So at this point in time I have absolutely no idea what a good-bench is for me because I have absolutely no experience working. So I will set aside my work-bench aside and allow myself to grow into it rather then speculate about it wildly.

Having said that here are a few more resources I have come across and would like to note for future reference:

  • A series of 4 pod-casts at Bob Rozaieski Logan Cabinet Shoppe which in addition to demonstrating a work-bench construction process actually explains some of the reasoning and considerations that should go into desinging it. This series was also an eye opener for me because Bob works almost completely with hand tools rather then power tools – which was an excellent lesson for me (though I will be taking the power-tools path). Keep in mind that Bob’s design and method of construction (including creating his own wooden-vice including custom wood-screws) are therefore better suited for hand tools. I’d love to see a similar series by and for a power-tool worker.
  • If you really want to dig into this there a book aptly titles Workbenches which Marc (the Wood Whisperer) recommended.
  • The Wikipedia page for Workbenches helped me figure out what bench-dogs and hold-fasts are (key elements in holding work-pieces down ont a workbench) are.
  • I’ve been looking (I now know) mostly at work-benches by and for wood-workers and this video offered a a much appreciated and simple work-bench – not a great bench but a great reminder that there are simpler options.
  • This video is of a more robust table and an excellent example of using building-blocks as a simple way to get around more complicated joinery.
  • Finally I found these (PDF download) simple and robust looking plansat WoodSmithShop.

That is all for now.

Revisiting our Land with our Architect

Last week we visited our home land a second time (this was the first)- this time with our architect  (who deserves and will get a separate post). Following are some panorama images and videos that Horatiu asked for to review and talk about later. There are a few stitching errors – but you are welcome to click the panorama images to get a closer view. Enjoy 🙂

This first panoramic video is taken from the fields to the west of our small valley (the direction from which we have arrived both times).

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This second panoramic video is taken where our plot of land begins.

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This is a panoramic picture and video taken from within the “courtyard”.

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This is the structures from the hill (our hill) across the valley followed by a panorama of the view from that hill.

This is a clearing to the east (right of the images above) of the structures.

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This is the agricultural land to the west.

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Waste Management

Most of my life I didn’t really give any thought to what happens with waste – it was all somehow transported away from the home and magically disappeared. Moving into a village home changes that. Nothing happens magically – everything needs to be consciously handled.

Waste Basics

Garbage is pretty easy. All food leftovers are either fed to animals or tossed into a compost pile. Glass containers are all kept and used for storing preserved foods. Plastic containers are used sparingly, and when possible used for short-term storage (like milk!). We haven’t had any aluminium cans in our lives in many years and we don’t expect a comeback.

This leaves three kinds of waste:

  • Grey water is water that comes from sinks, showers, washing machines, etc.
  • Black water is water that comes from toilets (discernible from grey-water due to the potential presence of feces or feces-related bacteria).
  • Solids that comes from toilets (including toilet paper).

The most common solution to these three wastes in standalone houses is usually a septic tank with an optional leach-field. A septic tank accumulates all the waste and needs to be emptied periodically. If liquids are filtered out of it using a leach-field then it can be emptied less frequently.

Grey water can be treated separately using either mechanized filtering systems or with organic solutions such as constructed-wetlands (or marsh fields) where a combination of soil and plants are used to clean the water to the point that it can be either reused (the uses depending on the level and quality of filtering) or simply released back into the ground.

Composting Toilets

The most simple and ecological solution for toilets are composting toilets. Basically these are storage containers with a top that looks like a toilet. There is no flushing mechanism – waste drops directly into the container. The basic premise of composting toilets are that if (1) liquids need to be separated from the solids; (2) there is proper ventilation; (3) the remaining solids are allowed to settle (in a cycle that takes 12-18 months – which means that fresh materials shouldn’t be added to it) then they will decompose into an excellent compost materials (about 10% in volume from the original waste).

Simple composting toilets can be self constructed. Their containers need to be manually emptied out into composting piles. Ready made composting toilets come with engineered containers that make the emptying process at least psychologically easier.

There is a very wide range of products and solutions under the name of “composting toilets” – I recommend you look around – it is an educating inquiry. One interesting solution I came across is called a trench-arch (explained in this PDF) – it is an improvised solution that was created by Nick Grant of Elemental Solutions for churches that do not have sewage access . I contacted Nick to inquire about the trench-arch and he replied that it is not suitable for the capacity of waste generated by a household.

Composting toilets are super ecological since no water is wasted on flushing and there is no waste – just compost. But the greatest challenge for us has been a mental one – the lack of flashing and having to carry out waste is, at this point in time, not appealing to us. So we are seeking a middle-ground to combine flushing and composting – which brings us to composting systems.

Composting Systems

In this section I will be describing a certain kind of composting system – a kind that I have grown familiar with and that we are considering for our house. There are other solutions out there and I encourage you to do your own research – and would be grateful if you come back and share your discoveries in the comments of this post.

Had money not been an issue we would probably go with a solution called an Aquatron (a complete system will cost us ~2500 euro). In this kind of system the toilets are unchanged – they standard water-flushing toilets (though we will be trying to find water-efficient “low-flush” toilets. The Aquatron system is made up of three strategic parts:

  1. At the heart of the system is a patented separator that uses centrifugal force to separate liquids and solids – the genius of it is that is requires no electricity and has no moving parts.
  2. The solids are then deposited in a rotating container that is separated into 4 chambers. The container is rotated once every 3 or 4 months so that filled chambers are isolated and allowed to rest and decompose. The decomposition process is accelerated by adding earth-worms.
  3. The liquids are funnelled through an ultra-violet filter and can then be treated as grey water.

Disclaimer: There is an excellent video of an installed and working Aquatron system – complete with the resulting compost (and other interesting videos!). I do however feel obliged to point out that I feel that the project to which I am linking, despite demonstrating some of the most advanced ecological systems available, is anything but ecological. It is a hugely wasteful construction project that does not in anyway exemplify my understanding and experience of ecological awareness. So … onto the video.

For us money is an issue so I am looking for a way to use just the Aquatron separator (~600 euro) with a self-built container. This video of an installation of another composting product demonstrates the core concept of a rotating composting container:

I also came across this website which offers detailed plans for creating your own rotating container. I haven’t purchased the plans yet – but it does seem like a reliable and feasible solution which will enable us to benefit from an affordable and ecological – part purchased, part do-it-yourself – composting system which together with a reed-bed system will provide us with an encompassing solution.

Our Home Land

Side story: One expression of our attempt to be focused and clear about finding land where we can create a home manifested the week after we arrived in Romania. Andreea began to purchase a local advertisements newspaper “Piata” which is published every Tuesday. She began to look at real-estate options so we could get a sense of what was out there. We didn’t make any calls or go to see anything. Some weeks later when we had an initial sense of what we were looking for, Andreea began to put together a spreadsheet list of potential properties. She would review it every week, update properties that were re-advertised and add new ones. Over a couple of months this gave us a sense of how long properties were on the market and changes in their asking prices. Still we didn’t call anyone or go to see anything … though by now we were beginning to feel a little guilty about it.

After our trip around Cluj we were geared up to dig our hands deeper into real-estate dirt. We were now focused on two areas – Cornesti (where Andreea’s phone number began, and maybe still is, circulating) and Mociu. Mociu appealed to us more then Cornesti – it felt more spacious, lighter and younger – and it came to us by surprise! So Andreea began to make some phone calls. One of the calls left Andreea exhilarated – she described a charming conversation with an old man looking to sell 10 hectares of land in Mociu. Andreea was all giddy with excitement – for no logical reason – though we’ve both learned to recognize and appreciate that when this happens to her we’ve come across something good.

Later that week, last Friday (February 18th) Sabin and Ina once again came to our karmic rescue. They borrowed a car from a now mutual friend (thank you sooooo much Alex) and we drove together, the four us and the land-owner, to see the land.

Mociu is about 40km (30 minute drive) east of Cluj. The name Mociu relates to both a communa (an area that encompasses numerous villages) and the central village itself. It feels like a developed village – it’s center feels like a living public place (not a typical village scene) – including kids walking around (even less typical). At the center of the village we took a left turn and the property we came to see is about 2km removed from the center. Now is a good time to let some images do the talking.

We couldn’t arrive directly to the house with the car because the final segment of the road leading to it will only be completed this coming spring. So we drove into a nearby field and began walking in.

It sloped and led us to a small bridge over a small stream

and this is the view that opened up before us (slightly to the left/north because a blinding sun was shining down on us from the south) – it’s a panorama – so you are welcome to click on it to see more (that invitation extends to the other panoramas on this page as well).

We continued, passed one property where a young farmer greeted us and arrived at our designated property – this image looks back at the path we took to the property – the land on the right hand side is one of the agricultural hectares belonging to it.

and just passed it is this:

from left to right: garage (red doors), summer kitchen (pink walls), main house (long blue structure), and finally a barn (great space for all the wood working in our future) … and there are smaller structures for firewood, pigs and chickens. Both the main house and summer kitchen are built of thick cob walls. The other two structures were built in recent years. The whole “complex” is perfectly oriented with protection of both a hill and trees on the north and then complete opening to the southern sun. It is also hooked up to electricity and telephone lines (no gas and no sewage).

Across the “street” (to the left) are 6 additional hectares sprawling up a gentle hill of land and a water well (amazing water!):

The summer kitchen is a small structure with one room and a stove installed behind one of it’s walls (with access from within the room)

And this is the main house – a 60 year old structure which testifies to the strucutral quality of both the land and the construction.

We wouldn’t want to live in this house but we are also not happy to tear it down. It’s also very useful for us for living in while we build the main house. We are considering leaving it as is for now and maybe using it as a basis for the Feminitate center we have envisioned.

To the east of the entire complex is a beautiful clearing where we could easily envision our house being built.

We fell in love with the place and speak of it as ours.

For those interested in the workings of Karma here’s one amazing fact about this place. I didn’t know this until we arrived back back in the city and parted from Ina and Sabin – that’s when Andrees told me about it. This was the first real-estate listed in Andreea’s spreadsheet. It has been with us, waiting for us, from the first weeks we arrived in Romania. We had to patiently follow a trail of clues for it to appear before us.

By the way … the property to the east of us (just beyond the clearing above) is also for sale 🙂